© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2001
ST. PETE BEACH -- That first BB gun was nothing special, just a broken-barrel, single shot, but it sure did shoot straight.
"We lived on a dairy farm and there were hundreds of rabbits running around the haystacks and the old gravel pit," said Pat Petitti, 72. "And there was no shortage of birds, too."
It was the Depression, and on the outskirts of Chicago, like other areas of the country, people learned how to make do with what they had. The young Petitti, not yet 10 years old, would shoot whatever small game he could find and hang the meat from a tree near the kitchen's back door.
"It was usually cold, so we didn't worry about refrigeration," said the son of Italian immigrants. "My mother would just go get something for dinner, and she would clean it, skin it and put it in the spaghetti gravy. ... We ate a lot of spaghetti in those days."
Petitti looks back fondly on those simple days in rural Illinois. Those lazy days spent combing the fields for game taught him a healthy respect for nature. He learned to take what he could use and to leave the rest, a hunter's ethic he still practices today.
"I spent most of my life in the grocery business," he said. "So I know how to butcher everything -- nothing ever goes to waste."
Over the past half century, Petitti has hunted in every corner of North America and brought home the skins and meat of more than a dozen different native species. For years, these trophies lay scattered throughout his house. But now, with his five children finally grown and on their own, he has found the time and money to have a "trophy room" built on the second story of his house.
There are pheasant, turkeys, duck, deer, elk, sheep and even an Alaskan brown bear, all within sight of the gulf's blue-green waters and the pink majesty of the Don Caesar.
"I have never had the chance to put everything in one room," said Petitti, who not only butchers his own game but does some of the taxidermy as well. "I look back ... there are a lot of memories here."
There's the first trophy deer, shot in Wyoming in 1948 when Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey. There's a salmon the size of a dog caught in Alaska and a lake trout every bit as big.
"Each one of these trophies has a story," he said. "I don't even know where to start."
How about a November morning, in an isolated stand of trees in northern Manitoba, many, many years ago ...
"It was 18-below zero, and I had set myself up in a tree stand with a sleeping bag, hoping to get a trophy deer," Petitti said. "I saw 21 different bucks that day, but I didn't take a shot at a single one."
There were eight hunters in Petitti's camp that trip, but he was the only one who stayed out the whole day and braved the cold.
"The rest went back and sat by the fire," he said. "I was happy just being in the woods."
When Petitti thinks back, he cannot remember what he would call a "bad" hunt. Sure, there were plenty of trips when he came home empty-handed.
"I think I like just being close to nature," he said. "There is nothing better than to just sit quietly in a tree stand and watch what goes on around you."
Petitti remembers one morning when he sat and watched a mother squirrel move her babies, one by one, from nest to nest.
"Where else are you going to see something like that?" he said. "That is what it is all about ... being part of nature."
As hunters go, Petitti has done it all. He has shot elk, caribou and moose, then carted their meat in a backpack, trip after trip, out of the woods on foot. He has hunted with black powder and bow and arrow. He has cleaned, skinned, cooked and, at times, stuffed the animals he killed.
And over the years, he has learned something every hunter should know: "I think the most important thing, and the key to being an ethical hunter, is knowing when not to shoot."